China announced in July that it will not buy certain types of paper and plastic scrap after this year because the material coming into their country is just too contaminated. This news has unnerved many in the recycling industry as well as environmentalists who want to stop plastic pollution. Last year, China imported half of the world’s plastic scrap, including $5.6 billion worth of scrap commodities from the United States. Losing our biggest customer is bringing changes and uncertainty.
PET and HDPE plastic bottles (#1 and #2) are easily recycled and retain more value after use than other plastics. Much PET and HDPE stays in this country. Manufacturers here buy used PET bottles and turn them into new bottles, carpet and clothing. Recycled HDPE that stays in the U.S. turns into new containers, plastic decking and outdoor furniture.
The other plastics, #3 through #7 (yogurt tubs, plastic jars and everything else that is recyclable) have little value. We were able to send this low-value plastic to China through cheap “backhaul” shipping. Cargo ships leave China full. Ships returning to China are often empty and will only get emptier with the ban. Now material recovery facilities (MRF’s) are desperate to find new buyers for their used plastic.
The ban has already flooded the market with #3 through #7 scrap. With little demand, some MRF’s have resorted to stockpiling plastic scrap. Stockpiling only helps until warehouses fill up. If buyers can’t be found, the scrap ends up in landfills or incinerators. Some municipalities are deciding to stop collecting low-value plastics at the curb.
But amid piles of plastic, there is hope. Low prices may encourage manufacturers to build facilities here that can use #3 through #7 recycled feedstock. Manufacturers no longer have to compete with prices that China was willing to pay. Low prices also make recycled plastic more attractive than virgin plastic. Scrap prices have had to compete with cheap plastic resin that is a byproduct of the U.S. shale oil boom. Now some buyers have turned in favor of recycled plastic thanks to the ban. A number of companies, including Target, Proctor and Gamble and Coca Cola, are requiring their suppliers to use more recycled content in products like industrial crates and garbage cans.
There is also hope that China will use the plastic ban to clean up its environment. A study in 2015 determined that China leaks more plastic into the ocean than any other country. Once plastic enters the ocean it becomes a global problem. Plugging these leaks will benefit everyone.
One thing is certain: The quality of our plastic scrap must improve. High quality means better sorting and no garbage. We toss a lot of stuff into our recycling bins that can’t be recycled. Plastic bags, garden hoses and plastic forks do not belong in recycling. These have to be removed, often manually at high cost, or they risk contaminating bales of scrap. Contaminated bales are not attractive to buyers. Mary McClellan, Executive Director of Carolina Recycling Association, says: “Contamination in recycling is a long standing issue. China provided a Band-Aid to an underlying issue, which is that the public does not completely understand what can be recycled.” She recommends checking Earth911 and Recycle Often. Recycle Right to find out what’s recyclable and where.
Want to do more to help prevent plastic pollution? Grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach. Pick up plastic. Maybe the plastic travelled from China, South America or was dropped by a visitor to the beach. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s removed and thrown away. Stock BlueTubes with clean, used plastic bags so others can help defeat plastic pollution too.